U.S. escalating covert operations against Iran

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. congressional leaders agreed late last year to President George W. Bush's funding request for a major escalation of covert operations against Iran aimed at destabilizing its leadership, according to a report in The New Yorker magazine published online on Sunday.

The article by reporter Seymour Hersh, from the magazine'sJuly 7 and 14 issue, centres around a highly classifiedPresidential Finding signed by Bush which by U.S. law must bemade known to Democratic and Republican House and Senateleaders and ranking members of the intelligence committees.

"The Finding was focused on undermining Iran's nuclearambitions and trying to undermine the government through regimechange," the article cited a person familiar with its contentsas saying, and involved "working with opposition groups andpassing money."

Hersh has written previously about possible administrationplans to go to war to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclearweapons, including an April 2006 article in the New Yorker thatsuggested regime change in Iran, whether by diplomatic ormilitary means, was Bush's ultimate goal.

Funding for the covert escalation, for which Bush requestedup to $400 million (200 million pounds), was approved bycongressional leaders, according to the article, citing currentand former military, intelligence and congressional sources.

Clandestine operations against Iran are not new. U.S.Special Operations Forces have been conducting crossborderoperations from southern Iraq since last year, the articlesaid.

These have included seizing members of Al Quds, thecommando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and takingthem to Iraq for interrogation, and the pursuit of "high-valuetargets" in Bush's war on terrorism, who may be captured orkilled, according to the article.

But the scale and the scope of the operations in Iran,which include the Central Intelligence Agency, have now beensignificantly expanded, the article said, citing current andformer officials.

Many of these activities are not specified in the newfinding, and some congressional leaders have had seriousquestions about their nature, it said.

Among groups inside Iran benefiting from U.S. support isthe Jundallah, also known as the Iranian People's ResistanceMovement, according to former CIA officer Robert Baer. Councilon Foreign Relations analyst Vali Nasr described it to Hersh asa vicious organization suspected of links to al Qaeda.

The article said U.S. support for the dissident groupscould prompt a violent crackdown by Iran, which could give theBush administration a reason to intervene.

None of the Democratic leaders in Congress would comment onthe finding, the article said. The White House, which hasrepeatedly denied preparing for military action against Iran,and the CIA also declined comment.

The United States is leading international efforts to reinin Iran's suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons, althoughWashington concedes Iran has the right to develop nuclear powerfor civilian uses.